Writing competitions and obscene amounts of money

earn-money-writingI’ve been thinking recently about writing prizes with huge money prizes. The one that really blew my mind was the Cesar Egido Serrano Foundation / Museo de la Palabra Flash Fiction competition (100 words or under), with its prize of $20,000. Yes, that is $200 a word. Or more. Stories are accepted in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic. There were 22,571 entrants last year. 22,571. I find both the prize and number difficult to grasp. How do you judge 22,571 hundred-word stories in four languages? Entering it must feel a bit like the lottery. Not to say that the winner won’t have deserved his prize – but I think the huge prize make it more likely for losers to be sore losers.

Which is something they really don’t need. I remember talking to a writer at the Cork Short Story festival a few years ago, when I was volunteering with the Munster Literature Centre. I had missed the start of the reading by the winner of the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize (€2,000 plus a residency, a very nice and graspable prize), coming in a few minutes late, and had had trouble getting into the story (my mind was elsewhere, my ankle was itchy, something). At the end of the evening, I started a conversation with this writer, who started telling me how she thought the winning entry was not that good, not good at all actually, and how the story she’d entered was more deserving. She asked me if I had entered a story, and when I said I had, she tried to make me say my story was better than the winning one. I suppose in her mind if I said my story was better, it validated her opinion that her story was better and she could go home feeling good about herself and thinking she should have won the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize. When I refused to say what she expected of me, she told me my excuse (that I couldn’t judge a story I had only half heard) was just over-the-top politeness.

My point, I suppose, is that writers are cranky, sometimes spiteful creatures, who spend most of their time in their caves, stroking the pages of their notebooks and whispering to themselves. And seeing someone earn more with 100 little words than the majority of published novelists are likely to make selling one (or two? Or three? I’m not quite sure) book will just increase their spite and let it squirt out in mean little comment to their cats.


Another thing about huge prizes is that it must be a real b*tch for judges. You often hear writing competition judges say that it’s easy to select a longlist, for instance, to eliminate what’s clearly not good enough, but that from then on it can hard to place a poem or story over another. Tough then, in a competition like the Ballymaloe International Poetry prize, to decide this poem gets €10,000, and this one, coming fourth, nearly nearly nearly as good, nuts.

As a writer, a loser of competitions, there’s only one thing you can do really. Be a good sport and be happy for the lucky one. Do not talk ill of her. Do not spike the celebratory wine with laxatives.